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School mask mandate stands

BESE meeting disrupted by anti-mask crowd
Thursday, August 19, 2021
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Louisiana BESE members gathered in Baton Rouge on Wednesday for a meeting that included a decision on masks in state schools on the agenda. Before the board could reach that item, the meeting was adjourned due to an unruly crowd objecting to any mask mandate for students in public schools.

The indoor mask mandate will remain in place for schools across Louisiana — not as a result of being upheld by the state’s top school board, but because a raucous, rule-breaking crowd caused the board to adjourn before they could vote on the issue.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was set on Wednesday morning to debate whether it wanted to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate and allow individual school districts to set their own COVID-19 mitigation measures.

But hundreds of attendees constantly interrupted the proceedings to heckle board members and protest the mask mandate. After pleading with the crowd to follow the governor’s rder while inside the public building, board members eventually voted 8-2 to adjourn the meeting before reaching the mask mandate item on the agenda.

Since BESE took no action on the item, Edwards’ mandate remains unchallenged. Masks will still be required in school buildings for everyone age 5 and up.

“If BESE didn’t take any action, then nothing’s changed for us,” Lincoln Parish SchoolsSuperintendent Ricky Durrett said soon after the meeting. “We’ll still be wearing masks and listening to our health professionals to keep our kids safe.”

School starts today in Lincoln Parish.

BESE had intended to debate whether it has the authority to go against Edwards’ order, which remains in effect through Sept. 1, based on a legal opinion issued by Attorney General Jeff Landry claiming that only BESE could decide how school districts are allowed to enact safety measures.

The issue of maskwearing in schools has been a topic of contention across the state in recent weeks, with multiple local school board meetings in other parishes seeing large protest crowds.

Wednesday’s crowd featured frequent chanting of phrases like, “No more masks!”

While board members were out of the meeting room to hold a closeddoors executive session on a separate topic, the crowd took over the room, led by controversial pastor Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church in Central.

Spell, who has repeatedly been in legal trouble for flouting COVID-19 restrictions, began preaching against “King Edwards,” calling him the “the biggest lawbreaker in state history” and telling the crowd “they can’t arrest us all,” according to USA Today.

Attendees eventually returned to their seats after BESE members came back into the room, but they continued to interrupt proceedings as members tried to get through their other agenda items.

At multiple points throughout the meeting, board members asked attendees to obey the mandate and put on masks, or else stand in the nearby overflow room.

The vast majority refused, and it appeared no attempt was ever made to remove anyone from the chamber.

The crowd was eventually given an ultimatum: mask up, or the meeting will adjourn without a vote on masks in schools.

“We don’t have authority to override the governor’s (order) in relation to what goes on in this building at this time,” member Michael Melerine said. “In order to have our discussion, in order to hear the voice of the people, we have to ask that that order is complied with. If you want us to be able to have this discussion, please put on a mask… please allow us to have an orderly meeting.”

With no change from the crowd, the vote to adjourn soon followed.

Prior to Edwards’ revival of the mask mandate on Aug. 2, BESE had planned to allow local school districts to have leeway in their own COVID-19 mitigation rules.

Durrett had originally planned to recommend, but not require, that employees and students in third grade and up in Lincoln Parish wear masks indoors this year after being required to do so last year.

Edwards brought the mask mandate back in response to a new surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the more virulent Delta variant.

“(Requiring masks) is the only way we have a reasonable shot at keeping schools open and kids safe,” Edwards said during a Wednesday radio appearance.

Lincoln Parish has added 291 recorded positive cases of the virus in August alone, including 36 cases on Wednesday. The local death toll is up to 90 confirmed deaths, two of them in the past week.